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The Islamic State Moves Into Yarmouk — a Refugee Camp 'Failed by Everyone'

Around 18,000 civilians are trapped at Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, where the Islamic State has now moved in. There was fierce fighting over the weekend, and experts warn that the situation may only get worse.
April 6, 2015, 12:50pm
Imagen vía UNRWA/AP

Fierce street battles between the Islamic State (IS) and a host of other militia groups raged over the weekend in Yarmouk, a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, where up to 18,000 civilians are trapped by intense fighting according to aid agencies.

By Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that monitors the conflict in Syria, reported that the Islamic State had seized as much as 90 percent of the district, bringing the militant group to within five miles of President Bashar al-Assad's stronghold in the Syrian capital.

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However, the amount of territory seized by IS could not be independently verified, and video footage from inside Yarmouk released the same day apparently showed ongoing gun battles. Palestinian factions also claimed to have fortified their positions on the southern side of the camp in a bid to hold back a further advance on Damascus.

"The situation in Yarmouk is a mess. There's intense street-to-street battles, people are trapped in their homes, cowering and desperate, and escape is virtually impossible," Chris Gunness, a spokesman for United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), told VICE News. "The civilians that remain are the poorest, the most vulnerable, the elderly; those that haven't had the means to leave before," he added.

The IS assault on Yarmouk, which begun on April 1 but was initially repelled, resumed with a fresh ferocity on Friday when the militant group's fighters moved rapidly into the camp. This time they were reportedly supported by militants from al Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, some of whom are alleged to have defected to the advancing group sparking claims of a secret pact ahead of the assault.

This footage is described as showing IS militants in the streets of Yarmouk refugee camp, clearing buildings.

Reflecting both Syria's internal turmoil and the complex and shifting allegiances of various Palestinian factions, numerous militia — both pro- and anti-government — have operated in Yarmouk since the outbreak of hostilities in 2011 making the camp one of the most volatile places in the Syrian conflict.

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As well as al Nusra Front, an anti-Assad Islamist group with a longstanding rivalry with IS, the camp also hosts fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC), a leftist group staunchly allied with Assad's Ba'ath Party, and Aknaf Beit al Maqdis, an armed group affiliated with Hamas, which broke off its support to the Syrian regime around a year into the conflict.

However, despite regular internal frictions, the camp has not seen violence on the current scale since the Free Syrian Army group clashed with PFLP-GC there in December 2012. "Before the advance of Daash [IS] there was a very, very fragile agreement in place among these vying groups, but this arrangement allowed some kind of long-term status quo in Yarmouk. This has now exploded with the arrival of Daash," Assad Abdul Rahman, an Amman-based Palestinian official and a former head of refugee affairs for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), told VICE News. "The important thing here now is not whether IS control 70 or 90 percent of the camp, but that they have joined troops, gained ground, with the support of al Nusra at the expense of Palestinian factions," he added.

While the Nusra Front has officially declared its stance in the ongoing battles as "neutral," reports from residents and activists on the ground suggest the group's fighters blocked reinforcements arriving to Palestinian factions trying to stave back the IS offensive. "Nusra Front along with other extremists are the ones who facilitated the entry of ISIL [another expression for IS] from Hajar al-Aswad district into the camp," PFLP-GC member Abu Kefah Ghazi, told Press TV, an Iranian broadcasting service on Sunday.

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Other reports also suggest, that alongside al Nusra's support, the rapid IS advance into Yarmouk was facilitated by a more general growing sympathy for the group in the southern districts of Damascus that have suffered the brutality of the Assad regime's tactics, including food shortages and air strikes.

For near two years prior to the current assault Yarmouk's residents, including 3,500 children, have lived under a government siege with minimal access to medical care and severe shortages of food and water.

"The situation is extremely dire and threatens to deteriorate even further," UNRWA warned in a statement released on Sunday. "For over a year now, the besieged inhabitants of Yarmouk have been reliant on UNRWA's irregular distributions of food and other assistance. The level of our aid has been well below the minimum required."

Related: Armed militants retake Syria's desperate refugee camp. Read more here.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former resident of the camp who fled several months ago but still has family inside said that many of Yarmouk's residents blame the PLFP-GC for the siege. "For people in the camp they are Assad's enforcers, they are helping create these conditions, they are starving us, Palestinians are terrorizing Palestinians," he told VICE News. "It's rule of the gun, it's total chaos and tyranny. Nobody knows who's in control," he added.

In a similar vein, a journalist and activist in Yarmouk told Middle East Eye last week that most of the IS fighters assaulting the camp were "not foreigners" but the "sons of southern Damascus."

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"IS did not come from nowhere. It was born out of the siege. Last year when food and water were running out and electricity was dwindling, support for IS began to grow," he said.

'This is "Mad Max" country, allegiances are shifting on a weekly if not daily basis.'

Experts are warning that the same scenario could potentially play out in other districts in the area. "This raises the possibility that Daash has sleeper cells, not just in and around Yarmouk, but further into Damascus which can be operationalized at a moment's notice," Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, told VICE News. "This is harbinger of the horrors ahead. If this kind of trend continues we're going to see Damascus under pressure not by the end of the year but by the end of the summer," he added, warning of an "Aleppo repeat."

The fight for Yarmouk is not likely to be over anytime soon, however, says Robert McFadden, senior vice president of the Soufan security and intelligence group. Despite being a little over one square mile in size, the camp's concrete jungle of apartment blocks and backstreets is a "quicksand" and militias will likely get bogged down in street-to-street and house-to-house fighting, he added. "It's a quagmire, it's urban warfare, it's an incredibly fluid situation," McFadden told VICE News. "At this rate it's going to go from the miserable to the horrible."

Related: Syrian aid blockage could bring years of famine and death. Read more here.

Indeed, experts caution that if a localized agreement has been made between Nusra Front and IS in the camp this is unlikely to hold for long once Palestinian factions are subdued or shift their support. "This is 'Mad Max' country, allegiances are shifting on a weekly if not daily basis, and agreements made on short-term mutual interests are likely to end in more fighting once those interests diverge," said Shaikh.

Meanwhile, UNRWA's Gunness said that the residents of Yarmouk had been failed by everyone. "We have watched and warned as the camp descended into this inhumanity. This is a colossal political failure for all involved," he told VICE News.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem